Who Is Losing Iraq?

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After the conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar—who served as both the Tommy Franks and L. Paul Bremer of that operation—had serious pacification problems. A particularly violent revolt occurred in the town of Uxellodunum. "Caesar saw his work in Gaul could never be brought to a successful conclusion if similar revolts were allowed to break out," wrote his friend Aulus Hirtius. "So he decided to deter all others" by cutting off the hands of the prisoners taken at Uxellodunum and sending the survivors out across Gaul as an object lesson. Hirtius concluded, "The situation was now everywhere satisfactory."

Iraq, like Gaul, is divided into three parts—and the U.S. has more serious pacification problems, and a less vivid set of pacification options, than Caesar did. The Bush Administration says the country is largely quiet—but a successful guerrilla war doesn't require much more than a fervent handful of fighters. In Iraq there are on average a dozen attacks against American soldiers each day. There are countless acts of sabotage. There is massive theft of oil, copper (from power lines) and electrical equipment. And there are the now weekly high-profile terrorist acts, like the bombing of the U.N. headquarters two weeks ago and of a shrine in Najaf last week.

Indeed, a depressing array of defense and foreign policy experts, including members of the uniformed military, have quietly concluded that postwar Iraq is the most vexing theater of operations the American military has faced since Vietnam. Even if Saddam Hussein is captured or killed, most experts (outside the Pentagon) believe that the restoration of order will be extremely difficult. Jihadist terror, organized criminality and internecine religious violence are likely to continue. For the immediate future, this is where George Bush's war on terrorism is being fought—and this is where his political future may be decided.

 Last week the President restated the obvious: retreat is not an option. Iraq cannot be left an anarchic, terrorist state. Every major Democrat running for President, including Howard Dean, agrees—and most go further than Bush, asserting that more money and manpower are needed to secure the peace. But the President has stubbornly resisted sharing with the American people a detailed assessment of the situation in Iraq: the fact that we may still be there a decade from now at a cost of hundreds of billions. The Pentagon—the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, that is—stubbornly insists that it retain control of all aspects of the Iraq operation and that no increased manpower is needed. Oddest of all, the Pentagon retains its neoconservative fantasy that Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress—who misled the Administration on weapons of mass destruction and on the rose petals that would greet the American liberators—may yet be coronated leader of a population that barely knows who he is.

Perhaps the defense ideologues remain hypnotized by Chalabi because the reality on the ground is so depressing. There will be no stability, and certainly no economic progress, until there is real security—but the three most likely paths toward security have severe drawbacks. The first is increased use of American troops and money. The money is inevitable—a supplemental appropriation of $60 billion, including $15 billion to $20 billion for reconstruction efforts, is being prepared—but more troops are problematic because the Army is already overstretched. The second path is a return to the U.N., which the State Department is trying to negotiate. This would be helpful symbolically—it would be nice to have Iraq become the world vs. the terrorists—and perhaps financially, but it would have limited military utility: State expects only 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers. And a deal will be difficult: the U.N. will agree to American control of the military operations, but not civil administration. "No Bremer," an international diplomat told me. "He's not done very well."

That leaves Iraqification, the third path, which everyone agrees is absolutely necessary. The Pentagon says it is Iraqifying as fast as it can, building no fewer than five indigenous security services that will ultimately involve 70,000 recruits. But far more bodies are needed. Several experts, including some in the Administration, suggest calling the Iraqi army—the ragtag regular army, not the Republican Guard—back to barracks. We are paying 235,000 former Iraqi soldiers to do nothing each month. Why not pay them to be border guards, to provide security for pipelines, power lines and neighborhoods? If they can't do that, why pay them at all?

A Pentagon official told me the idea of reactivating the army is "naive"—which is ironic, given the Pentagon's willful naivete about postwar Iraq. But I suspect that all these options will be attempted in the coming months, lest George W. Bush face the electorate in 2004 as the President who presided over a severe degradation of the U.S. military and the diminution of America's reputation in the world—as the President who lost Iraq.